Monday, May 9, 2016

Sadr, the Kingmaker: The Protests and Washington's Choices in Iraq

On Saturday, protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament in reaction to lawmakers’ failure to convene and vote on a second batch of new ministers. The vote was intended to complete a partial cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had initiated the previous week as part of broader reform plan to replace sectarian party quotas with independent technocrats in top government positions.

It was a sharp escalation of a political crisis that has rocked Iraq for almost nine months now. Although the immediate threat to the government abated with the protesters leaving the compound, the situation is still unpredictable, and Baghdad seems unable to walk itself away from the brink. The United States will thus be critical in brokering a settlement between the prime minister and the parliamentary blocs who oppose him. And, for the first time, it will have to open a direct conversation with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader who once fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War and is now the de facto leader of the protests. Continue reading...

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Prime Minister Abadi Initiates Promising Cabinet Overhaul

PM Abadi presented his choices for a new cabinet formation before parliament today. Here are my initial thoughts on what I think is a very positive development:

--Abadi showed that he can act decisively and meet deadlines. He did not get bogged down in the bickering of political parties.

--Abadi showed toughness and succeeded in absorbing great pressures from multiple parties, including threats by Sadr to storm the green Zone and uproot the government. Moqtada responded rather positively by ordering his followers to end their sit-in, which is welcome deescalation of the tensions of recent weeks.

--Sherif Ali bin Hussien, a Sunni Arab related to Iraq's former monarchs, is a good choice for foreign ministry. Sophisticated and respected. Giving him the foreign ministry will be good for repairing Iraq’s connections with the Arab world.

--Ali Allawi is an excellent choice for finance and planning. Intelligent and thoughtful. Merging these two portfolios can consolidate and streamline planning and execution of budgets. Having a clean minister at the top promises to control corruption and inefficiency. 

--The fact that many of the other candidates don't sound familiar is generally a good sign in Iraq!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Abadi buys time with promise to change 9 ministers

Sources in PM Abadi's bloc said today that he will nominate 9 technocrats on Saturday as his candidates to fill ministerial portfolios in his promised cabinet reshuffle.

Moqtada Sadr, who had set a 45 day deadline that expires Monday for Abadi to reform his cabinet or face removal, seems to be satisfied by the news, at least for now. Sadr called the announcement “brave” and urged the PM to implement his cabinet reshuffle in no more than 2 stages, “without appeasement or fear from parties covering up for the corrupt in their midst.”

I wouldn't call it crisis averted, yet. It's still not clear if the announcement actually holds water. So far there's no direct statement form Abadi or his spokesperson. Also, as of yesterday, the major parties were still dragging their feet on nominating replacements for their to be ousted ministers. 

If today's announcement came without Abadi receiving nominations from the parties then there's a good chance that no names will be presented on Saturday. And if Abadi actually ends up presenting 9 names on Saturday that were not nominated by their parties, then getting a confirmation vote in Parliament will be quite a feat.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The threat of Moqtada al-Sadr grows

The news reporting on relations between Sadr and Abadi can be quite misleading. The headline at Reuters today reads "Iraq's al-Sadr supporters back PM's move for non-partisan cabinet to fight graft"

But taking these words at face value would be a mistake. Sadr is bullying Abadi rather than supporting him. He has given him 45 days to implement cabinet changes that would place in office candidates who are selected by Sadr and his aides. Sadr has publicly threatened to uproot the government and have his followers storm the Green Zone if Abadi did not comply.

In what world does this qualify as support?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

ISIS attacks Iraqi army base near Makhmour

I warned on Twitter a few weeks ago that ISIS will likely strike at the Iraqi Army camp near Makhmour to try and disrupt the force buildup before the Iraqis are ready to commence offensive operations.

Well, today this happened. Th news says that "Four Iraqi soldiers were killed and at least 23 others wounded," when ISIS attacked the base Thursday morning.

ISIS reportedly used Katyusha rockets in the attack. And now the enemy artillerymen have a pretty good idea of where to aim in order to make the next salvo land where it hurts

If this hasn't been done already, the Makhmour base should be given sufficient ISR capabilities to detect ISIS activity in plausible launch sites and prevent similar, or worse attacks in the future. The base and troops are too important for the Mosul battle-and indeed the entire campaign-to leave unprotected. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ninewa council votes against PMU participation in retaking Mosul

But was the vote really necessary? I feel that there must be better things that the Ninewa council could spend their time doing. After Tikrit and, more importantly, after Ramadi, it's become rather obvious that the Hashd role in the fight for Mosul cannot/will not go beyond establishing perimeter and/or shaping operations. In my view messages like this vote seem unnecessary, divisive (as indicated by the PUK, Shiite and Turkmen representatives reported opposition to the vote) and therefore possibly harmful.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Abadi's cabinet reshuffle plan heats up competition among Shia parties

PM Abadi's plan to inject fresh blood into his cabinet is polarizing the Shia coalition. Sadr supports Abadi's plan while State of Law and ISCI seem more interested in replacing Abadi himself. Sadr is trying to position himself to increase his influence in the government. He's telling Abadi: I'll support you and your plan, but in return I get to pick the committee that gets to nominate the  new cabinet members. ISCI and State of Law are unhappy.

So the choice may end up being one between the current dysfunction and a Sadr-dominated cabinet, with probably greater dysfunction....Unless, Abadi manages to pacify ISCI and State of Law, while keeping Sadr's hand out of the cookie jar. That's a tall order.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Are Abadi and the KRG serious about a new oil deal?

So the Baghdad and Erbil governments are now negotiating, very publicly, a new arrangement to settle, at least temporarily, their differences over KRG oil exports and budget.

PM Abadi made an offer, which the KRG says it accepts. But does this mean a deal is happening? It's not that simple.

Abadi's proposal was this: "I have a suggestion: Give us the oil and we will give every Kurdish employee a salary like we do for every Iraqi employee."

The KRG interpreted the proposal as: "sending the entire salaries of the Kurdistan Region’s 1.4 million employees which amount to 890 billion IQD."

The problem is, 890 billion IQD is about $800 million, but the 600,000 bpd the KRG would hand over to State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) are worth about $450 million (assuming $25/bbl). 

Is Baghdad ready to cover the difference of $350 million? Most certainly not.

The way I see it, Abadi's "like we do for every Iraqi employee," was meant to include implied austerity measures that are bound to increase as Iraq's budget deficit grows bigger and bigger.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Federal Oil Ministry includes KRG exports in January figures

Something is different. The Federal Oil Ministry today included oil produced and exported by the KRG via Ceyhan in it's production and export figures for January. The addition brought the total production figure to a nice and juicy 4,775,000 bpd! This was not the case in previous statements since the collapse of the last oil/budget agreement. Last month's statement, for example, stated that: "Oil exports via Ceyhan port are suspended because the agreed amounts have not been delivered by the Kurdistan Region Government"

Could this mean that a new deal has been struck? Or is Baghdad just messing with Erbil?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fayadh and Ghabban under fire

The parliament defense and security committee--whose members are often associated with nonsense statements--seems to be making some sense this week. The committee members met with PM Abadi yesterday and pushed him to replace Hashd Sha'bi (aka PMU) administrator Falih Fayadh with a military officer because he's been unable to discipline some of the Hashd groups.

The committee was also quite upset with Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban and his recent appointment of supposedly hundreds of fellow Badr organization members.

Obviously the members of the committee are all motivated by their personal and partisan interests first, but if Ghadban is on the road to becoming Solagh 2.0 and populate the ministry with death squads then I sure am glad that someone is trying to prevent it.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Is Kirkuk that cheap?

Kirkuk, which has been desperate for cash for so long, has finally received what seems to be a first tranche of petrodollars from the KRG. Kirkuk's oilfields (namely Avana and Bai Hassan) have been contributing roughly half of the oil the KRG has been exporting independently since the collapse of the oil/budget deal with Baghdad last summer.

Obviously there's a lot more to the ties between the KRG and Kirkuk than just cash, but my first reaction is:

1) Kirkuk is massively underselling itself!

2) Did Baghdad really fail to make a more appealing bid?

3) Or is it that Baghdad didn't want to throw good money after bad? (Not that Baghdad had invested much in Kirkuk between 2003 and 2014)

4) If # 3 is the case, then perhaps Kirkuk felt it had no choice but to accept whatever the KRG was willing to offer, which is next to nothing. A mere $10 million for 200,000 or 250,000 bpd is insane.

5) If #3 and #4 reflect what actually happened, then Kirkuk must be resenting the deal already and will be/is searching for a better one.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What's speaker Jubouri doing in DC?

Curiosity is mounting in Baghdad. The Speaker of Parliament, Saleem al-Jubouri, has reportedly (according to Iraqiya TV) been in Washington DC since last Wednesday but he's yet to make any public statements/appearances. I heard that he's doing this trip not in an official capacity as Speaker, but in a personal one as a Sunni leader. Still, this doesn't explain why he hasn't done any speaking engagements at the usual think tanks. Strange.

Rumor has it that Jubouri wants to talk to US officials about Sunni politics but is so fearful of Iran's watchful eyes in Baghdad that he decided to come all the way to DC. Questions about this trip will likely start to haunt him soon. Will be interesting to see who in Baghdad will rise to defend him. 

The problem with Erdogan's exclusionary policy against Syrian Kurds

The Syria peace talks are stumbling on the 2nd day, which is not unexpected. It seems that despite the devastation, important regional actors (namely Saudi Arabia and Turkey) and in turn their proxies are willing to drag their feet. John Kerry is rightfully pissed.

While the Saudis are showing a little bit of flexibility now, I think the Turks are shooting themselves in the foot by insisting on keeping the most important Syrian Kurdish factions out of the discussion. The US and UN should not have acquiesced to Turkey's demand.

Erdogan thinks that by denying the PYD/YPG a seat at the table their role will diminish and that, in turn, hurts the PKK. But the argument could also be made that by telling the Syrian Kurds that they have no place in future Syria, Erdogan increases the risk of Syria's disintegration and the emergence/consolidation of Syrian Kurdish autonomy.    

Friday, January 29, 2016

Reinventing the Modern System

There has been some news about promising progress in the training program for new Iraqi Army brigades. US commanders are talking about applying the lessons learned from the Ramadi battle and how this will become the new standard for churning out the 8 brigades need to retake Mosul. This, combined with the shaping operations need before taking the plunge in Mosul (think Hawijah, Sharqat, and surrounding areas) means Mosul will likely go through 2016 still in ISIS hands.

As a student of war and history, I can't resist drawing analogies to WWI (while fully aware of the astronomical difference in scale). Almost exactly a 100 years ago, European armies and their generals struggled to find ways to break the bloody stalemate that gripped the western front in 1915-1916. That excruciatingly painful learning process eventually produced what many today call the modern system of warfare (thanks, professor Biddle!).

The Iraqi military today is not relearning skills and methods they had known before but forgotten since the 2003 war. The Iraqi military, in my view, never fully internalized the modern system, and is therefore learning from scratch. There are good reasons the 1980-1988 war with Iran is sometimes called "the last battle of WWI." Similarly, the strategic posture of the Iraqi army during the Gulf War 25 years ago also reflected pre-modern system way of doing business. Of course, some units in the army had been able to conduct maneuver warfare during the late stages of the Iran war and during the invasion of Kuwait, but the overall posture and doctrine were outdated. The situation only got worse during preparations for contact with the US military in early 2003.

After 2003 the building of the new built military also missed an opportunity to include training needed to produce a force capable of conducting proper modern system/combined arms warfare. The result was a "checkpoint army" that, putting aside corruption and morale issues, was ill-prepared for the job.

There were several years of *relative* peacetime during which this kind of training could have been done...but it's better late than never. I hope this effort will continue to retrain the whole army, not just the minimum required for Mosul.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Iraq privatizing electrical tariff collection

The Iraqi government has officially begun the privatization of electrical tariff collection this week. The ministry of electricity reported today that a tariff collection in a handful of residential districts in Baghdad has been handed over to private companies.

There's a lot of money there. The ministry says there's about $2.5 billion worth of unpaid bills. The private companies will not be in charge of collecting on those old unpaid bills, though. Instead, the new effort will focus on collecting current and future bills.

The Kurdish Regional Government is considering a similar plan. Earlier this month, the deputy PM, Qubad Talabani, said the KRG was looking into monetizing parts of the power sector, namely bill collection.

Both plans by the federal and regional authorities will be hard to implement. Perhaps the KRG faces a relatively tougher challenge because a) people have less money in Kurdistan because the KRG hasn't been able to pay salaries, and b) Power supplies in parts of Kurdistan have seen, relatively speaking, a sharper decline in recent months.

That's not to say the federal authorities will be hugely successful. They will have an uphill, likely losing battle trying to expand tariff collection outside Baghdad to the provinces. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

KRG President Barzani says he’s ready to give up the presidency

KRG President Masoud Barzani reportedly told political parties at a meeting today that he’s willing to handover the presidency to someone who’s ready to take over the job. The report says no one at the meeting responded to Barzani’s offer. 

Was this a serious offer? Let's assume someone comes tomorrow and says: "I'm ready! give me the job." What happens next?

1) Does president Barzani have the power to transfer the presidency without elections? 
2) If so (or if that doesn't matter), how much legitimacy will that presidency have? 
3) How will other contenders react?

It's an offer no one can accept. Brilliant.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Peshmerga war crimes?

Amnesty International has a report that says there's evidence of a "concerted campaign" of displacement and destruction of homes by the KRG to punish Arab communities in northern Iraq for their perceived support of ISIS.

A couple of things must be said here. 

First, this is a reminder of the risks--for outside powers--associated with taking sides in a civil war. There's a dilemma. On the one hand it is imperative that you assist those who are willing to fight ISIS. On the other hand, most, if not all of those anti-ISIS actors have innocent blood on their hands.

Second, the actions the report says the Peshmerga did, if true, are reprehensible. But at the same time, it could've been worse. There are many shades of bad. I'll choose angry Peshmerga over smiling Badr any time. Ask Sunni Arabs in Diyala and Salahaddin. 

Third, war brings out the worst in people. It makes you paranoid and hugely increases the risks of giving others the benefit of doubt. Policies that look to an outside observer as collective punishment, are considered preventative/defensive in the eyes of those executing those policies. 

Is this the end for Basra Heavy?

There was a piece in the news today about Iraq asking CNPC to go ahead with existing plans to ramp up production at Halfaya oilfield to 400,000 bpd on condition that CNPC accepts deferred payment.

The interesting, and alarming, piece of information that came with the story is that the cost of production at Halfaya is said to be $15/barrel. While this is still rather low by industry standards, it means that Basra Heavy is about to reach the point where extraction cost meets or exceeds the selling price.

Basra Heavy, which makes up roughly a quarter of Iraq's southern exports, was fetching about $24 in late December when Brent was hovering just above $36. Today Brent fell to $27. You do the math. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Saudi Arabia and the Case for Rebalancing U.S. Foreign Policy

The United States needs a new doctrine for the Middle East. This new strategy should acknowledge that some allies in the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia, no longer act as forces of stability. The U.S. administration must demand demonstrable changes in state-sanctioned religious indoctrination if it hopes to mitigate the increasing threats of international terror.

Wars in Iraq and Syria, more frequent attacks in Europe, and expanding Islamic militancy in Africa point to gaping U.S. policy deficiencies in its prevalent understanding of and vision for combating violent extremism in Muslim communities. Every time militants strike a Western city or establish a stronghold elsewhere, U.S. and Western allies rush to double down on airstrikes and issue calls for political settlements to civil wars. Yet these governments never confront their own allies in the Muslim world that have been helping to stoke the jihadi fires among Muslim communities. Instead, the most cost-effective answer to long-term terrorist threats is to stop Saudi Arabia’s policy of promoting Salafi Takfiri Islam.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Partition Checklist

People curious about Iraq often ask me this question: Would it not be better to just break up Iraq? Or, Do you think Iraq will separate it into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish states?

In order to answer this question, I think one must first look at the set of issues that could decide whether Iraq will break down into 3 states. I will not discuss here whether Iraq should be partitioned into 3 states.

It’s not an exhaustive list, but these are in my opinion the key questions. Let’s call them, the partition checklist.

Will Iraq’s neighbors support its partition?

a) Will Saudi Arabia welcome an exclusively Shia Iraqi state on its northern border? Will it exacerbate a sense of encirclement? Think about the Saudi response to the rise of the Houthis in Yemen.

b) Will Turkey welcome the formation of an independent Iraqi Kurdish state? Yes, the Turks like the Barzanis, but does this mean Ankara will not worry about other Kurds in Syria and Turkey itself following suit? Think about Erdogan’s renewed conflict with the PKK and his response to the YPG.

c) Will Iran prefer to have greater influence over part of Iraq (the new Shia state), or lesser influence over all of Iraq? What if you throw in geographic link to Syria and Hezbollah with the latter?

The Kurds aside, will the Shia and Sunni Arabs want partition?

a) Despite some complaints about the cost of fighting to retake Sunni areas from ISIS, there are few signs of support for partition among Shia Arabs.

b) The Sunni Arabs are, as usual, divided and unable to produce a unified vision for their future in Iraq. Perhaps we can loosely identify 4 schools of thought among them: 

1) Jihadists and right wing Sunnis who want to control all of Iraq (include ISIS and remnants of JRTN et al in this category); 

2) Federalists who wish to copy the KRG experiment and push for what we can call functioning federalism (this is more or less mainstream, as demonstrated by the 2011-2013 regionalization projects in Diyala, Ninewa and Salahaddin; 

3) Idealist nationalists who dream of a secular Iraq with strong central government (you could count Allawi’s supporters in this category); and 

4) Pragmatists/federalism skeptics who prioritize retaking Sunni land from ISIS (the must-have) over the delegation of power from the center to the province (nice-to-have, at best). This generally applies to anti-ISIS tribes in Anbar.


Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Conscription to replace National Guard?

There's talk in the parliament defense and security committee about preparing a proposal to reinstate conscription as an alternative to the National Guard project, which has been stalled from more than a year. Supposedly, the Speaker or one of his deputies is said planning to convene a meeting of the heads of political blocs to discuss differences over the National Guard proposal, and the potential for replacing it with conscription.

Interesting this is coming from Sadrist "lawmaker" and militia leader Hakim Zamili because the idea of reinstating conscription used to come from secular Sunni nationalists like DPM Mutlaq.

Charge of the Knights 2.0?

There's good news for Basra today. PM Abadi, who is in town for security meetings and a ribbon cutting for a new 500MW power plant, has ordered a heavy security force to be sent to Basra to restore order and disarm tribes that have been wreaking havoc there. The force, including Abrams tanks, started arriving this morning.

It is very positive that Baghdad can now afford to redeploy (and hopefully sustain) some troops with teeth back to southern provinces after the ISIS war forced the government to send almost every unit that can fight to the front lines in Anbar, Salahadding, Diyala and around Baghdad.  If this effort in Basra proves successful it will have great implications for the broader struggle for restoring state authority.

The big difference between Charge of the Knights in 2008 and the mission that started today in Basra is that there are no American or British troops to help the ISF. Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Shia Kurds told to leave Sadr city

This is curious. Hakim al-Zamili, the senior Sadrist who, quite unfortunately, chairs the Parliament security committee, told the press that Shia Kurds residing in Sadr city have received threatening phone calls telling them to leave the area.

Zamili then contradicts himself. On one hand says that the threats were made by groups that want to displace Kurds and commandeer their homes "like what happened to Christians." On the other hand he says those threats are not serious and are meant to make Sadr city look "unsafe, militia-infested."

This doesn't smell good. This guy is up to something. 

Diyala scares me

The ISIS attack on a mall in Baghdad yesterday was nasty, but for some reason attacks in Diyala tend to be scarier in terms of the escalation and retaliation that follows. As usual, retaliation means collective punishment against the suspect community. In this case several mosques and shops were torched and about a dozen people were executed on the streets by unknown militants. Sunni residents were told to leave the town. Worse things could follow...

What will it take for the human race in general, and people in the Middle East in particular, to recognize that collective punishment is a failed counterproductive policy?

Friday, January 8, 2016

Erdogan says attempted attack in Baeshiqa "vindicates deployment", but PUK says there was no ISIS action

Erdogan today said that ISIS was about to strike camp Baeshiqa, where Turkish troops are deployed, with rockets. Turkish soldiers accompanied by Iraqi volunteers preempted the attack, according to Erdogan. He said the incident shows that Turkey was right to deploy additional troops last month to protect Turkish advisers training anti-ISIS Iraqi volunteers.

However, a PUK source says there was no attack and that "the Baeshiqa sector did not see any ISIS movement worth mentioning."

Interesting to see a PUK guy go out of his way to contradict Erdogan and Nujaifi even though the alleged incident is way out of PUK areas. 

Sistani disappointed by inaction on corruption

Sistani's Representative in Karbala, Ahmed Safi, relayed in Friday's sermon the Grand Ayatollah's frustration with lack of results in prosecuting the "heads of corruption." Safi had this to say: "The year passed without clear achievements on the ground...this is very regrettable...I will not say more at this point."

The tone is different from what it used to be 6 months ago when the reforms initiative was launched. Today it is more indicative of frustration than of resolve. This a worrisome sign.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Funny one! Gorran wants Abadi to help remove Barzani

Things are getting uglier between the KDP and Gorran. Yesterday there was news that the KDP wants to sue Gorran's leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, over the unrest back in October. Today, a Gorran MP in the Iraqi parliament says PM Abadi should intervene to remove Masoud Barzani from office, saying his stay in office is illegal...Not the best display of internal cohesion when you're trying to sell your plans for independence.

Pipeline to send Kirkuk gas to Turkey?

So supposedly the Kirkuk administration agreed with Erbil to build a pipeline to send gas from the Bai Hassan field to Turkey. Question is, who's going to pay for it when both Erbil and Kirkuk are broke? I think the chances of this idea becoming a reality are pretty slim. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A three-year deadline for Kurdish "amicable divorce from Iraq"?

Anyone ever heard of, Aziz Ahmad, the person who supposedly wrote this article on Newsweek?
I have not. Why three years? I have many questions about this piece. It's too simplistic in its narrative, yet strikingly specific when it comes to the policy changes it demands. 

Monday, January 4, 2016

Peshmerga digging new trench around Kirkuk

So apparently the Peshmerga is making is making progress establishing a new trench system south and west of Kirkuk city. The new trench will reportedly be supported by "fortresses" every 300 meters.

This is not the first time the Peshmerga dig a defensive trench around contested territory. But this one is said to be a little different. It includes GPS beacons, and, rumor has it, is meant to function as a new permanent border.